Evelyn’s Garden of Paradise

Sybil Jack


God Almighty first planted a garden — so wrote Francis Bacon towards the end of his life as one of the keys to his vision of the world, and it was Bacon’s ideas about philosophy and science that directed much of English scientific and philosophical activity in the century after his death. He envisaged an institution he called Solomon’s House, an organisation in which the best intellects would be focussed on gathering knowledge for future practical services. This was the approach that inspired John Evelyn to promote publication of material on matters from agriculture to techniques of all sorts. Evelyn’s obsession with gardens was fundamentally religious. Philosophical/medical gardens were ‘a rich and noble compendium of what the whole globe of the earth has flourishing’.  Gardens had a divine nature. If they were mathematically correct, they reflected the garden of paradise.

The seventeenth century has been seen by some as the most significant century in the history of mankind, the greatest change in the way that humans see the universe as the result of a battle between different ways of explaining the nature of the world. Critical to this was the revival of the ideas of Epicurus about atoms, as seen in the poem of the Roman Lucretius that had been rediscovered in the fifteenth century. This difficult work had been translated into a number of European languages, but not into English until Evelyn attempted to translate the first book into English hexameters. It was published in 1656 with his explanatory comments about the scientific implications of the argument (based on Gassendi refuting the claims of those who did not accept it). Walter Charleton and others set Evelyn up as an image of Lucretius in representations of English virtuoso discussing Epicurian ideas. As Epicurus was sometimes described as the Philosopher of the Garden this was perhaps not unfair. This was in many ways the first assertion of Evelyn’s ideas about the material world from plants to soil, but his struggle with Lucretius’s religious position caused him to query the science and probably moved him to embark upon what was to be his great unfinished work, Elysium a synthesis of which he was circulating to his friends at the end of the 1650s.

While not all historians agree with the assertion that the seventeenth century was vital to the present world, there can be no doubt that the intellectual changes that took place in that century fundamentally shifted the explanations that were offered about the nature of the material world and its relationship to religion with which Evelyn was deeply involved. Science at the time was differently defined, but aspects of it were coming under detailed consideration as a range of new ‘machines’ for examining everything from the stars above to the earth below were invented. Enlarging human vision of the heavens with a telescope – and the interpretation of such key issues as the Transit of Venus — offered a fundamental change to concepts of the world; microscopes enabled a reassessment of the rocks, soil and water. Many other instruments were developed in the period to transform scientific understanding — barometers, thermometers hygrometers, anemometers were the best known. Laboratories in which intellectuals could use instruments to advance understanding of plant growth by analyse the chemistry of soil, the important of heat, the effect of moisture, changes with height and other elements of the environment were set up near the houses of the better off thinkers. Evelyn had a laboratory attached to his garden and in it he did experiments of all sorts but particularly with attempts to cultivate plants from other parts of the world that were not immediately suited to English conditions.

Even more important to the development of a new scientific approach was the constant exchange of information between intellectuals and the willingness of many to co-operate in the pursuit of new information. ‘Intelligencers’, as men like Marin Mersenne and Samuel Hartlib have been termed, were the internet of their day. Throughout Europe, a host of intellectual bodies such as the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome were established. Their members sought to understand the natural sciences through services they established such as libraries, laboratories, printing presses and botanical gardens. In England, Evelyn whose long sojourn in Europe had familiarised him with developments there helped found the Royal Society in 1662 whose purpose was to advance ‘experimental philosophy’.

The improvement of printing was also critical as people who promoted the publication of innumerable books and pamphlets describing the discoveries spread knowledge of these changes to a wider audience. Evelyn by promoting printing and writing all sorts of pamphlets on scientific matters enabled information to be widely available, and it was probably here that he played his major role by translating and publishing the works of others as well as his own.

Publications on botany pre-Evelyn

Evelyn was not the first in his enthusiasm either for Epicurus or for gardens, although there were several other philosophical approaches. Plants had always been of interest to many people for different purposes. Farmers and pastoralists needed to understand them for food; foresters for timber; medical practitioners and apothecaries for their medical uses; religious authorities for their role in healing the wounded conscience. As printed books became more common, those that offered an insight into botany became popular. Trees were described as divine, philosophical, astronomical, cosmographical, historical, and humane to the pleasure and profit of those who use them. There was a problem of nomenclature as formal names were not standard and local names were ill-defined and were labelled and relabelled in an unmanageable way in every language. The relationship of different species to one another was not well established and their grouping was very general with labels such as trees, or herbs.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century gardens of all sorts in England were not well developed and most of the plants were indigenous or those that had been introduced many years ago. Vegetables and fruit trees that had previously not been cultivated in England were introduced in the sixteenth century. Formal gardens comparable to those in Europe were established and the characteristics of decorative plants and new vegetables like the cauliflower investigated. Much of the material published at the time went back to the Romans like Theophrastes and Dioscorides, but by the end of the fifteenth century new plants which were being brought into Europe from other continents – Africa and the Americas – had to be included. European books appeared in the late fifteenth century but the earliest in England was the Grete Herballe (effectively an encyclopedia) in 1526. This was followed by others including Tusser but most significantly by Thomas Hill’s brilliantly illustrated The Gardeners Labyrinth (1577) and works by William Turner and John Gerard. Many of the books were written by medical practitioners or apothecaries and by literary thinkers not all of whom were familiar with the plants in their actual appearance.

Some English writers like Hill were already concerned with improvements to growing plants such as ways of ‘settling corn’ or testing soil often mixed with magic practices and zodiacal consideration for when to plant and harvest. Hugh Plat in Floraes Paradise published in 1608 was already describing gardening experiments. Alongside the books came albums of dried plants called a hortus siccus that enabled plants to be studied closely even when the live plants were not available. Hill described the ‘phisicke benefit of ech herb, plant, and floure, with the vertues of the distilled waters of euery of them’. Sniffing the distilled water of colewort was said to aid childbirth, while borage ‘removeth melancholie’. John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum written in English and first published in 1640 was perhaps the last of the herbals but it gave details of all the plants he knew, where they were to be found and what their ‘value’ was. The plants from outside Europe were transforming botanical understanding and exploitation. However, chemical elements such as arsenic, quinine and the like were starting to replace the sole use of plants in medicine.

Attempts to establish a natural system of classification had also begun in the sixteenth century but these classifications were still only loosely defined, based on the structure of flower or fruit. Scholars were beginning to look further by the turn of the seventeenth century and works like Andrea Cesalpinus who in De Plantis Libri XVI produced a classification that indicates what sort of classification might be established, although it was not widely accepted in the seventeenth century. However, classification was a minor preoccupation as investigating the new species being brought from distant parts with the help of new instruments like the microscope had a higher priority. All these works were known to Evelyn by the time he set off for Europe in 1641 and he did not forget them later in his life even though more up-to-date material had often replace them. As late as 1696 he sent Dr Wotton “A short treatise concerning Metals” which Plat had written half a century earlier.

Evelyn and gardens – 1640 onwards

Since Francis Bacon had promoted gardens as ‘the purest of human pleasures’, they had been widely established and described. There was therefore a long history of writing on gardens in England before Evelyn was born. Even before he was independent or reached maturity, Evelyn was able to read works published in England and follow up the ideas they advanced. People in Europe, however, had gone further than the English in many ways. Evelyn seems to have been amazed by the French who had formed botanical gardens from the beginning of the sixteenth century. These were professional gardens attached to the medical faculty, apothecaries and the king; and as well as private ones belonging to doctors and apothecaries who were anxious to develop rare plants, like tobacco that were being brought from the Americas, Africa and elsewhere. They became the model to which he aspired.

Although he was a younger son, his family was wealthy enough to enable him to spend a long time on the continent where he studied various subjects at the universities there including chemistry and medicine. Evelyn was already seeking to obtain the new instruments that men like Cornelis Drebbel had invented for investigation of optics, time, and chemistry. They included the first microscope with convex lenses, and high-quality telescopes.

In 1641 he spent two and a half months in Holland. He explored the famous botanical garden of the university at Leiden and was given a catalogue of the exotic plants and enjoying the cabinet of natural curiosities attached to the garden. At the end of 1643 he spent several months in Paris visiting public and private gardens and was particularly impressed by Morins garden there. As he journeyed further south Evelyn and other English visitors met unfamiliar plants and trees, especially myrtles and cypress that they sought to carry them back to Britain and establish in their own gardens. Late in 1644 Evelyn was in Italy and in Padua where he stayed for several months where the gardener at the botanical gardens allowed him to take cuttings for a Hortus Siccus (now in the British Museum). Evelyn was overwhelmed by the Italian gardens and their mathematical and architectural design. His comment on the Pitti gardens, which include the reference to paradise are typical:

The garden has every variety, hills, dales, rocks, groves, aviaries, vivaries, fountains, especially one of five jettos, the middle basin being one of the longest stones I ever saw. Here is everything to make such a Paradise delightful. In the garden I saw a rose grafted on an orange tree. There was much topiary-work, and columns in architecture about the hedges. The Duke has added an ample laboratory, over against which stands a fort on a hill, where they told us his treasure is kept.

As he travelled around Europe Evelyn had often accompanied others with gardening commitments primarily his Middle Temple tutor, Thomas Henshaw and Robert Morison who was one of the earliest people to attempt a natural system for classifying plants.  These were the people with whom he researched aspects of gardening and plant behaviour for much of his life. They were all profoundly impressed by the structure of scientific investigation on the continent, especially by the Academies.

Evelyn returned to England with no sympathy for the Cromwell regime and was determined to remain in private life. His ambition was to create a garden with all the attached laboratories like those he had seen in Europe with the functions that they could fulfill. In this he was particularly close to Robert Hooke who is sometimes seen as the greatest English scientific investigator of the period. It was Hooke who developed the compound microscope, the barometer and other instruments which opened up, as he pointed out, ‘a new visible World discovered to the understanding’.

Evelyn was committed to European avenues of trees, the grottoes, waterworks, and symbolic sculpture, and in the 1650s he adapted these designs to English circumstances at his family’s garden at Wotton and in the garden at Sayes Court in Deptford. Sayes had belonged to his father-in-law and he initially acquired it as a result of his marriage in 1653. For it, he obtained hundreds of plants of differing types and origins which he sought to establish and study. A typical diary entry is: ‘9th August, 1661. I tried several experiments on the sensitive plant and humilis, which contracted with the least touch of the sun through a burning glass, though it rises and opens only when it shines on it’.

Figure 1. Evelyn’s etching of his brother’s garden at Wotton, 1653. British Library, Add MS 78610G.
Figure 2. Evelyn’s plan for renovations to his garden at Sayes Court, 1653, British Library, Evelyn Papers. Vol. CCCCLXI A, Add MS 78628A-B

Evelyn’s role

Evelyn was a polymath with a wide enthusiasm for establishing knowledge that covered investigations from physics to botany and the structure of the earth. He has been various described as an originator or a pioneer. Gardens were only a part of his interest in science where his literary representation ‘of the laboratory, of collaborative retirement, of virtual, epistolary conversation, and of an imagined paradise of investigative fellowship and learning’ was part of the changing approach of the wide circle of scientists to which he belonged. He was encouraged to publish noting in his diary on 16 January 1661: ‘I went to the Philosophic Club, where was examined the Torricellian experiment. I presented my Circle of Mechanical Trades and had recommended to me the publishing what I had written of Chalcography’. After 1662 the Royal Society went on recommending the publication of the pieces that he presented to them in the remaining forty-five years of his life. He published on architecture, printing and engraving and painting as well as, under pressure from Charles II, historical accounts of aspects of the history of the time.

If we are to remember John Evelyn for his main contribution to science, we should perhaps not neglect his attack on the abomination of pollution in the first work he dedicated to Charles II in 1661, Fumifugium: Or The Inconveniencie Of The Aer And Smoak Of London Dissipated. ‘Sea-coale alone in the City of London, exposes it to one of the fowlest Inconveniencies and reproches, that can possibly befall so noble, and otherwise, incomparable City’, he wrote. He was not quite the first to condemn pollution as produced by the burning of coal— Sir Kenelm Digby had been there before him as Evelyn acknowledges — but his solution which required the extension of plantations around London with trees and odiferous plants remains a significant one even today. He named in particular:

The Sweet-brier, all the Periclymena’s and Woodbinds; the Common white and yellow Iessamine, both the Syringa’s or Pipe trees; the Guelder-Rose, the Musk, and all other Roses; Genista Hispanica: To these may be added the Rubus odoratus, Bayes, Iuniper, Lig∣num-vitae, Laevander: but above all, Rosemary,’ as well as Lime trees hyacinths and flowers like ‘Pinks, Carnations, Clove, Stock-gilly-flower, Primroses, Aurieulds, Violets, not forgetting the White, which are in flower twice a year, April and August Cowslips, Lillies, Nareissus, Strawberries, whose very leaves as well as fruit, emit a Cardiaque, and most refreshing Halitus: also Parietaria Lutea, Musk, Lemmon, and Mastick, Thyme: Spike, Cammomile, Balm, Mint, Marjoram, Pempernel, and Serpillum, &c. which upon the least pressure and cutting, breathe out and betray their ravishing odors.

It seemed that some result might come of it for he notes in his diary that:

The king was pleased to discourse to me about my book inveighing against the nuisance of the smoke of London, and proposing expedients how, by removing those particulars I mentioned, it might be reformed; commanding me to prepare a Bill against the next session of Parliament, being, as he said, resolved to have something done in it. Then he discoursed to me of the improvement of gardens and buildings, now very rare in England comparatively to other countries.

In this work he makes reference to the major work he had already embarked upon. which was to be called Elysium Britannicum or The British Paradise.This he had outlined by the late 1650s sending outlines and examples to friends for comment. He accepted their comments, including in the later plans the additional chapters proposed by John Beale for example, and a whole section written by Sir Thomas Hanmer. This was not to be his work alone but to represent a view of the subject as shared by many botanists at the time. In a letter to Sir Thomas Browne he speaks of his

…abhorrency of those painted and formal porjections of our cockney gardens and plots, which appeare like gardens of past-board and march-paye and smell more of paynt then of flowers and verdure: our drift is a noble, princely and universal Elysium capable of all the amenities that can naturally be introduced into gardens of pleasure …. We will endeavour to shew how the aire and genious of gardens operat upon humane spirits towards virtue and sanctitie…

After forty more years during which he amended and updated Elysium, it remained unpublished. It was termed the most important unpublished document in English garden history until John Ingram edited what remains in 2000. Much however is missing if the prospectus of the presently surviving manuscript is correct. This may be because bits were removed and published elsewhere.

Evelyn’s Elysium was designed differently from Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum which described nearly four thousand plants and whose earlier work on gardens had been called Paradisi in sole Paradisus. Evelyn was focussed on the wider scientific aspect of the material universe and their philosophical nature. He had introductory chapters on the matter of the universe. Air, for example, was the ‘second face of the matter of this Universe’. ‘Elysium’ was a word for a place or state of perfect happiness – often after death – or Arcadia or Paradise (or the royal Gardens) and Evelyn’s choice of the term reflects his constant idealisation of gardens. One of his earlier contributions to English environmental understanding had been his translation in 1658-9 of a major French work on gardens Nicholas de Bonnefons Le Jardinier Francois. Evelyn defined a terrestrial garden as a substitute for the paradise from which God had exiled Adam and Eve. In the 1650s he had structured his argument within Epicurus’s philosophy. The Lucretius poem that embodied Epicurus’s theory of atomism was opposed to the more widely assumed ideas in the Aristotle/Aquinas philosophy. Although Evelyn later shifted away from Epicurianism he wrote in the Elysium rather cryptically:

For so we desire to reconcile whatsoever we may have spoken to the well restored doctrine of Epicurus, from which however, the notions seem …Hermeticall and to interferre upon a superficial view we neither do, nor intend to recede.

His garden had to fit into his understanding of the nature of the material world and its relationship to a creator. His aim however remained to describe ‘a noble, princely and universal Elysium capable of all the amenities there can naturally be.’ He was already identified by Hartlib and his circle as an exemplary intellectual and in in 1657 William Rand dedicated to him The mirror of True Nobility and Gentility.

Evelyn’s thought after 1660

On Charles II restoration all the major botanists, most of whom he had already met in his travels, became members of The Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge and were involved in the new discoveries that could be made with the improved microscope about plants, such as their internal structure. A subgroup of the society identified from their ideas about Virgil’s Georgics worked on all aspects of plant and garden investigations. Here he interacted with Sir William Temple, Abraham Cowley, Sir Thomas Browne and Andrew Marvell. He was in correspondence with nearly all the great intellects of his day.

What the research uncovered required changes of interpretation. Evelyn supported and adopted and publicised many of Hooke’s discoveries about fossils and plant cells and together with Robert Boyle helped get Hooke’s book Micrographia into print in 1665. He was also in frequent friendly contact with men like Morison and Nehemiah Grew (author of the Anatomy of Plants, 1682) as well as Hooke, Henshaw, and most of all John Ray (author of Historia Plantarum, 1686,1688, 1704).

The Elysium

In 1660 the Elysium was apparently making progress although much was probably being done by Evelyn’s amanuensis, Richard Noake. The very success of the Royal Society and the discoveries of botanists like John Ray, however, required constant amendments and alterations to the Elysium. As well as changes to the various forms of gardens he was describing, like the coronary garden and the Philosophico-Medical, there was material about ‘conserving, ‘properating’, retarding, multiplying, transmuting and altering the Species, Forms and (briefly falled) substantial qualities of plants and Flowers’. He also needed to set down material about the ‘gardiners Elaboratory’ and the rare experiments that should be done in it, ways of preserving examples of exotic plants and painting and other illustrations. It was announced for publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in November 1669, but this was not achieved, and Evelyn began to realise that the labour of publication of so massive a work was probably beyond him. Aspects of the work appeared separately as there was a demand for them. In 1675 he delivered to the Royal Society an account of the earth as Terra: The Philosophical Discourse of Earth (1675) which was mainly taken from J de la Quintinie’s work. In it he discusses types of earth and their value to the husbandman.

Other parts of the Elysium ere extracted for publication were the Kalendarium Hortense (1664) and the Directions for the Gardiner and Acetaria (1699). In the preface to this he explains why bringing the whole Elysium to completion had failed.

This is that which abortives the perfection of the most glorious and useful undertakings; the unsatiable coveting to exhaust all that should or can be said upon every head… There ought to be as many hands, and subsidiaries to such a design (and those masters too) as there are distinct parts of the whole … that those who have the means and courage, may (tho’ they do not undertake the whole) finish a part at least, and in time unite their labours into one intire, compleat, and consummate work indeed.


Evelyn was devoted to gardens and botany for the whole of his long life. He had various setbacks in his work in his own gardens as temperature, wind, rain, storms, and carelessness destroyed plants and trees. As well as supervising and studying his own gardens he advised and helped friends all over England who were starting to shape and establish their own. Evelyn died in 1706 with the Elysium unpublished. The ideas he promoted in it were, however, already circulating as they were part of the development that led to the eighteenth-century breakthrough in botanical understanding. They were largely accepted by his circle of philosophical innovators and could be seen in practice in the various gardens Evelyn had designed for others, such as the one at Aldbury Park in Surrey. They were also introduced by committed gardeners like Sir William Temple and promoted in their writings. As a result, the idea of what constituted a true garden which the group had shared, and the aesthetic ideas that Evelyn also favoured became widely accepted. The long tradition of the English style of landscape gardening can be traced to this.

About the Author

Sybil Jack retired as an associate professor of History at the University of Sydney in 2000 but continues to research in various areas including forestry and gardens. Born and educated in the UK with degrees from Oxford she taught and researched in Economic History and History in Sydney. Her recent publications include, Gardens of History and Imagination: Growing New South Wales, edited with Gretchen Poiner (Sydney University Press, 2016), including her chapter ‘Garden Elements: Seeds, plants and their sources in colonial New South Wales’.

Further reading

URLs accessed 25 September 2020

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Essays, Civil and Moral (The Harvard Classics, 1909–14. XLVI).

Samir Boumediene, La Colonisation du savoir. Une histoire des plantes médicinales du « Nouveau Monde » (1492-1750), Éditions des Mondes à faire, https://journals.openedition.org/chrhc/6067.

Maurice Bouvet ‘Les anciens jardins botaniques medicaux de Paris’, Revue d’Histoire della Pharmacie Dec 1947.

John Evelyn (1620–1706), Maggie Campbell-Culver (ed), Directions for the Gardiner and Other Horticultural Advice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Gillian Darley, John Evelyn Living for Ingenuity (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

John Evelyn (1620–1706), Diary https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41218/41218-h/41218-h.htm and vol.2 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42081/42081-h/42081-h.htm.

John Evelyn (1620–1706), An essay on the first book of T. Lucretius Carus De rerum natura (London, 1656) https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eebo;idno=A88639.0001.001.

John Evelyn (1620–1706), Fumifugium: or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated (London, 1661) https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A38788.0001.001?view=toc.

John Evelyn (1620–1706), Maggie Campbell-Culver (ed), Directions for the Gardiner and Other Horticultural Advice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

John Evelyn (1620-1706), John E. Ingram, (ed), Elysium Britannicum, or The Royal Gardens Evelyn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

A C Grayling, The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Frances Harris ‘The Manuscripts of John Evelyn’s ‘Elysium Britannicum’, Garden History 1997.

Frances Harris and Michael Hunter (eds) John Evelyn and his Milieu (London: British Library 2003).

John Dixon Hunt, John Evelyn: A Life of Domesticity (London: Reaktion Books, 2017).

Leah Knight, Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England: sixteenth century Plants and Print Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate 2009).

Mark Laird, ‘Sayes Court Revisited’ in Frances Harris & Michael Hunter (eds.), John Evelyn and his Milieu, (London: British Library, 2003).

Mark Laird, A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015).

Scott Mandelbrote, ‘The Publication and Illustration of Robert Morison’s Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis’ Huntington Library Quarterly Vol. 78, No. 2 (Summer 2015).

Therese O’Malley and Joachim Wolshke-Bulmahn (eds), John Evelyn’s “Elysium Britannicum and European Gardening (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1998).

Claire Preston, The Poetics of Scientific Investigation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Prudence Leith-Ross, ‘The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford’ Garden History, 25, 2 (1997),

Albert Forbes Sieveking (ed) Sir William Temple upon the Gardens of Epicurus, with other XVIIth Century Garden Essays (London: Chattus and Windus, 1908).

Alastair Small and Carola Small. “John Evelyn and the Garden of Epicurus.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 60, 1997.

Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Margaret Willes The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1560-1660. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013).